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PROBLEMS WITH DISPENSATIONALISM


William Kilgore

"But we fear that the dispensationalist method of interpretation does violence to the unity
of Scripture and to the Sovereign continuity of God's purposes, and cavalierly leaves out of
account a major portion of the apostolic teaching - that, chiefly, of the Acts and the Epistles
- as unrelated to the perspective of the Old Testament authors." Philip E. Hughes,
Interpreting Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 104.

The theological system known as "dispensationalism" has literally controled much of the evangelical Bible
interpretation going on for the last 100 years or so. This is due to its far-reaching popularity. For modern
believers, it has become a "grid" through which the Scriptures are read -- even by many who have never heard
the word "dispensationalism." Note that I have said "theological system" -- this is important. Many think of
"dispensationalism" as an eschatological (prophecy) view only -- not so.

Before I begin, let's clear up a commonly held misconception. Dispensationalism is NOT a synonym for
'premillennialism' -- there were many premillennialists before the dispensational teachings were invented.
Now, it is true that premillennialism is the only eschatological viewpoint that 'works' with dispensationalism,
but this does not necessarily hold true in reverse. Non-dispensational premillennialists today call themselves
'historic premillennialists.' [1]

Rather than go into a detailed history, I want to simply make one point by examining a quote from an article
entitled "An Introduction to Dispensationalism" -- note: this is a pro-dispensational article:

"So how did this doctrine or system of interpretation come about? It would seem that different
people thought of this idea of dispensationalism at different times, all independently of each
other. Some of these men expressed themselves clearer than others. For instance, dispensational
thinking is present in the theological works of Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer. One of the men
to express this system clearest in his writings was Mr Darby, and his thoughts were borrowed by
a Presbyterian by the name of C.I. Scofield who included them in his study Bible. Another
Presbyterian by the name of Lewis Sperry Chafer adopted dispensational thinking, and
propagated it at Dallas Theological Seminary. Other notable dispensational teachers include H.A.
Ironside, John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie."

Without faulting this author's sincerity -- he's dead wrong. First of all, it is true that Isaac Watts (and some
others) divided Scripture historically into a number of 'ages' - but this device is not what I am here arguing
against. [2] Now, this author writes, "It would seem that different people thought of this idea of
dispensationalism at different times, all independently of each other ...." This is simply not true. There is not
any truth in this statement, and I have no idea where this author got this from. Everyone listed after Isaac
Watts can be traced back to Darby or to Scofield (who learned it from Darby!) -- Chafer, Ironside, Walvoord,
Ryrie, all of them. [3]

The important point is that the concepts I will mention below are entirely new -- i.e., late 20th century --
innovations in Biblical interpretation. None of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the Puritans, or mainline
denominations before the late 1800s could be found to support such teachings. (This is not to say that certain
details of certain details cannot be found here and there if we read them with 'dispensationalist' eyes on!)

So what is "dispensationalism"? The simple definition given to the word "dispensation" (e.g., Eph. 1:10) is
where it all starts. Scofield writes in his Reference Bible: "A dispensation is a period of time during which
man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations
are distinguished in Scripture." From this definition stems a host of error affecting several areas of theology.

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I'm going to simply identify some of what I consider to be the system's most serious errors, and then offer a
refutation of each in turn. [DISCLAIMER: Some individual dispensationalists differ in details.]

I. THE LITERALIST HERMANEUTIC OF DISPENSATIONALISM

Dispensationalists rely on interpreting every single text of Scripture in a "literal" way. This system defines
"literal" as "natural/material/physical" -- the use of symbols is only accepted when there is no other choice!
This has led to all types of 'prophetic insanity' -- including several infamous attempts to determine the date of
the "rapture"! [4]

This "literal" hermaneutic is applied even to the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. But prophetic students up
until Darby - regardless of their millennial viewpoint - were basically united in granting the spiritually
symbolic sense to the Apocalypse! This was generally true with good reason -- when we look at how OT
prophecy was fulfilled as recorded in the NT, the "literalist" hermaneutic just does not stand up. Almost all
OT prophecies were given as pertaining to our "natural" realm. But are all of these prophecies fulfilled in the
natural? Certainly not!

Some are fulfilled in the natural realm just as given (Gen. 15:13-16 = Exodus; Num. 14:34 = Dt. 8:2; etc.), but
most are not (e.g., Gen. 17:5 = Rom. 4:17; Gen. 22:17 = Mt. 16:18; Ex. 19:5-6 = 1 Pe. 2:9; Dt. 32:21 = Rom.
10:19; 2 Sam. 22:50 = Rom. 15:9; Ps. 22:22 = Heb. 2:12; Ps. 68:18 = Eph. 4:8; Ps. 118:22-23 = Mt. 21:42;
Isa. 8:17-18 = Heb. 2:13; Isa. 29:10 = Rom. 11:8; Isa. 54:1 = Gal. 4:27; Isa. 65:1 = Rom. 10:20; Jer. 31:33ff.
= Heb. 8:8-13; Eze. 37:26-27 = 2 Cor. 6:16; Joel 2:28 = Acts 2:16-21; Amos 9:11-12 = Acts 15:15-16; Hab.
2:4 = Rom. 1:17; Hag. 2:6 = Heb. 12:26-29; Zech. 6:12 = Acts 4:11/Eph. 2:20/Heb. 3:3; Mal. 4:5 = Mt.
11:13-15; etc.; etc.; etc.). I would strongly urge the reader to look at each prophecy = fulfillment that I have
listed -- none of them were fulfilled in a strict "literal" sense. Furthermore, these examples equal a small
percentage of the total number!

There is also a propensity among dispensational teachers to designate multiples of subjects mentioned in
Scripture based solely on the use of different terms in separate passages. Hence, dispensationalists teach that
there are two Kingdoms, two (or more) Judgments, two (or more) resurrections, two "comings" of Christ (one
a 'secret rapture' & the other a visible 'revelation'), and three (or more) Gospels! Such ideas are addressed
under their appropriate heading below. The general refutation is simply the recognition that several terms may
be used for the same subject, and different facets of that same subject can be emphasized within different
contexts. Never does such necessitate dividing a subject into two (or more)!

John MacArthur, himself a moderate dispensationalist, has made an important observation:

"There is a tendency ... for dispensationalists to get carried away with compartmentalizing truth
to the point that they can make unbiblical distinctions. An almost obsessive desire to categorize
everything neatly has led various dispensationalist interpreters to draw hard lines not only
between the church and Israel, but also between salvation and discipleship, the church and the
kingdom, Christ's preaching and the apostolic message, faith and repentance, and the age of law
and the age of grace." [5]

II. UNIQUE PROPHETIC INTERPRETATIONS

The prophetic interpretations of dispensationalists are largely the most popular right now. They teach that this
"dispensation" (the sixth, by most accounts) from Pentecost to the "rapture" is "the Church Age" -- a
"parenthesis" unforseen by the OT prophets. Once the Church is removed (i.e., in "the rapture") it is generally
taught that there will be a 7 year "tribulation" (based on a 'chopping up' of Daniel's 'seventy weeks' prophecy).
God will then resume His dealings with natural Israel, fulfilling all the OT promises, restoring their temple,
etc. Finally, Christ returns and sets up a literal 1,000 year earthly kingdom before the eternal state (as with
"historic premill."). I'm going to skip the 'tribulation' & 'millennium' teachings in this article; [6] the Israel
notions are discussed below.

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I would like to briefly mention the "rapture" idea. Paul's scenario in 1 Corinthians leaves no room for a "secret
rapture" separate from the actual Second Coming:

"But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at His
coming. Then comes the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the
Father; when He shall have put down all rule and all authority and power." -- 1 Cor. 15:23-24.

This is so clear -- there is one "coming" which will include the resurrection/'catching away' (read the rest of 1
Cor. 15). "Then," Paul says, "comes the end." Now what could be any plainer? Every prophetic school of
interpretation (pre., post., & a.) all taught this until Darby came along! There is not one passage of Scripture
that does not fit with Paul's scenario. Furthermore, many other passages also teach that the resurrection
(remember: one event with 'the rapture' per 1 Cor. 15) occurs at His coming (e.g., John 6:39,54; 1 Cor. 15:23;
Phil'p. 3:20-21; Col. 3:4; 1 Thes. 2:19; 4:14-17; 2 Thes. 2:1; 1 Peter 1:13; 5:4).

Likewise, I suggest that there is only one Final Judgment -- at which both believers and unbelievers will
appear. The righteous and the wicked are separated at His coming per Matt. 13; 24:37-40; 25:31-46; and Luke
17:29-35. Note especially the word "then" in Matt. 25:31. It is at this time that saint and sinner alike are
judged -- cf. Rev. 20:11-15 (see also Matt. 16:27; 24:41-46; Romans 2:5-6; 1 Cor. 3:13; Col. 3:4; 1 Thes. 5:1-
10; 2 Thes. 1:1-10; 2 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 9:28; 1 Peter 5:4; 1 John 2:28; 3:2). The Second Coming is on the same
day as "the day of judgment" (2 Peter 2:9). It is at this same Judgment that believers are found written in "the
Book of Life," unbelievers are cast into "the lake of fire/Gehenna", believers are rewarded, etc. Different
terms do not different judgments make! Rather, such terms highlight different aspects of one and the same
Judgment. There is no valid reason to interpret the Biblical data any differently.

Likewise, there is only one bodily resurrection -- which occurs at the Second Coming (John 5:29; 11:24;
Heb. 9:27 with Rev. 20:11-12). Nothing in Scripture suggests two resurrections, yet most dispensationalists
theorize that this is so. Why? I suggest that the dispensational system requires such unfounded theories to
preserve its eschatological chain of events.

III. ISRAEL & THE CHURCH

Are there "two separate programs of God" -- one for natural Israel and another for the Church? Two distinct
"peoples of God"? This is what dispensationalists teach! Ryrie states that the

"basic promise of Dispensationalism is two purposes of God expressed in the formation of two
peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity." -- Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today,
pp.44-45 (emphasis mine).

I believe that such can easily be refuted by a careful reading of Romans 11:17-26. Yes -- Israel was 'blinded'
and 'cast away' for a season 'until the fulness of the Gentiles', etc. -- I believe this 100%. But notice that the
Church was 'grafted into' the same "olive tree"! Further, it is this same "olive tree" that the remnant of saved
Jews will be grafted back into it "again"! Note also that we are speaking of Israel's "own olive tree" (v. 24)!
There is only one body, only one people of God, only one Israel -- and it is spiritual.

I suggest that the exalted Jesus Christ reigns now on "the throne of David" (Acts 2:30-36), on the true "Mt.
Zion" (Ps. 2:6; Heb. 12:22; 1 Pe. 2:6; Rev. 14:1), in the heavenly "Jerusalem" (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 11:10,16;
12:22; 13:14; Rev. 3:12; 21:2,10), over the true "Israel of God" (Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6; 11; 1 Cor. 10:18;
Gal.6:16 - contrast Rev. 2:9 and 3:9). Who can deny such clear texts?

The "temple" is the Church (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:21; Heb. 8:2; 9:11). There has been an end to sacrifices
(Dan. 9:27; Heb. 10) -- the veil was torn in two (Matt. 27:51/Mark 15:38/Luke 23:45). There is no future time
of a 'restored temple & sacrifices' where God returns to the OT economy -- that is "retro-religion." Why return
to the "weak and beggarly elements" (Gal. 4:9) of the Old Covenant, where the blood of sacrificed animals
could never remove the stain of sin - such was not even possible (Heb. 10:4)! No, God has spoken in these
last days by His Son (Heb. 1:2) concerning the New Covenant - "better" in every respect (2 Cor. 3:7-11; Heb.
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7:19,22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:40; 12:24).

The Church Age is no "unforseen parenthesis" as dispensationalists claim. No, to this "Church Age" the OT
Prophets gave abundant witness - Ps. 72:11,17; 86:9; Isa. 2:2; 11:10; 42:6; 49:6; 54:3; 60:3; 61:9; 62:2;
66:12,18-19; Jer. 3:17; 4:2; 16:19; Dan. 7:13-14; Micah 5:8; Hag. 2:7; Zech. 2:11; 8:22-23; Mal. 1:11; Matt.
8:11; Mark 11:17; Luke 2:32; Rom. 15:8-12; Gal. 3:8. It is true that some aspects of it were "hidden" from
their understanding (Eph. 3:2-11; Col. 1:25-28). But this does not mean, as dispensationalists often teach, that
the Prophets were completely "in the dark." We are no 'accident' -- we are no 'plan B' that God was forced to
resort to (see below) -- no, everything is right on schedule and going according to God's sovereign plan!

IV. SALVATION BY GRACE, THROUGH FAITH -- ALWAYS!

Along with their many dispensations, they also teach that men were saved differently in each of them. Now,
some dispensationalists deny that their system teaches this. However, it is rather easy to substantiate. C.I.
Scofield states:

"As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ....The point of testing is
no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with
good works as a fruit of salvation" -- C.I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible, 1909,1917(notes on
John 1:17, sec.2) p.1115.

No, no, no! Revisionists (i.e., The "New" Scofield Ref. Bible) have tried to water this down and "fix" it -- but
essentially the idea is still there inherent in their faulty definition of "dispensation" (see above). Salvation has
always been "by grace, through faith" -- period. The dispensational system throws out the Reformed teaching
on the relationship between grace and law.

One web author points out another serious error in this connection: "Dispensationalism believes that the
purpose of the first advent of Jesus Christ was to offer an earthly Kingdom to the Jews. This Kingdom would
reinstate the Old Testament legal system and it's expansion to the entire world under the Messiah. When the
Jews rejected Jesus Christ and His Kingdom offer, plan B went into effect and Christ went to the cross to
initiate the dispensation of Grace and the 'mystery church'. Had Israel received her King there would have
been no cross - and no Gospel!"

As the late Philip Mauro pointed out in a brilliant article, this entire "kingdom offered, kingdom rejected,
kingdom postponed" idea actually makes Jesus legally guilty of the charges leveled against Him by the
authorities in His crucifixion! [7] The Kingdom was rejected by unbelievers, yes -- and they gained no
entrance into it. But it was never 'postponed'! No way!

To the contrary, Jesus Christ now sits "at the right hand of God" (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:62; 16:19;
Luke 22:69; Acts 2:33-34; 7:55-56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3,8-13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), the
Biblical fulfillment of "the throne of David" (Acts 2:30-36). This is the present reign of Christ (Matt. 28:18; 1
Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:20-23; Phil'p. 2:9-11; 1 Pe. 3:22) -- a spiritual reality (Luke 17:20-21; John 3:3,5-7;
18:36; Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20; 15:50; Col. 1:13; 1 Thes. 2:12; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 12:28; 2 Peter 1:11). What
can possibly be added to "all power" (Matt. 28:18)?

On a final note, contrary to dispensationalist distinctions, a comparison of the synoptic Gospels reveals quite
clearly that whether referred to as "of heaven" or as "of God," one Kingdom is in view (e.g., Mt. 4:17/Mark
1:14-15; Mt. 5:3/Luke 6:20). Further, it is this same Kingdom that is given to the Messiah in Daniel 7:13-14
(cf. Mt. 12:28; cp. Luke 22:16 with 22:30) -- "the kingdom of Christ" (Eph. 5:5).

V. HOW MANY GOSPELS? & "LORDSHIP SALVATION"

Jesus and His disciples preached "the Gospel of the Kingdom" (Mt. 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:14-15), as did the
Apostle Paul (e.g., Acts 20:21-27). Our Great Commission has only one Gospel in view -- this very same
"Gospel of the Kingdom" (Matt. 24:14; 26:13; 28:18; Mark 13:10; 14:9; 16:15; Luke 7:22; 9:6; 20:1; Acts
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8:25, preached to Samaritans!; Acts 14:7,21; 15:7; 16:10). It is for Jew and Gentile, without distinction (Acts
15:7; Romans 1:16; 10:12,16). Note that Paul's entire "olive tree" scenario takes place within the context of
the Gospel (Rom. 11:28). In Romans 15, we see that Paul's "Gospel of God" is in fact "the Gospel of Christ."
Mark 1:1 reveals that it is this same "Gospel of Christ" that is unfolded in the synoptic gospels: "The
beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ..." Paul's Gospel is Christ's (2 Cor. 2:12) -- we dare not accept
another (2 Cor. 11:4,7; Gal. 1).

Don't be fooled by notions that depend on the fact that different terms are used for the Gospel in different
contexts -- such is no proof of "different" Gospels! Don't be fooled by elaborate theories concerning when
certain Epistles were written, to whom, and advancing misdefinitions of words like "dispensation." No -- there
is one Gospel throughout the NT.

The "Lordship controversy" of recent years is theological disagreement that cuts to the heart of salvation. One
faction defines faith as simple "belief," denies repentance from sin, and reinvents the old "carnal Christian"
error by denying that works inevitably follow true conversion. These ideas are logically consistent with the
dispensationalism of its defenders - Dallas Theological Seminary, Zane Hodges, Charles Ryrie, and others. It
all boils down to whether Christ must be received as "Lord" in order to be "saved." This faction says "no." In
doing so, they take the dispensational dichotomies to their logical conclusion (see above).

The other faction stands within the tradition of historic Christianity in defending the so-called "Lordship
salvation" view. That is, conversion entails submission to Christ's Lordship, including repentance. This group
is represented by teachers like John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul. The "Lordship" advocates are correct.

We must understand what Scripture means when it calls Christ "Lord." When Christ is called "Lord" it is in
the Messianic sense of King/Master. Therefore, when we are told to "confess Jesus as Lord" -- we are really
being told to willingly submit ourselves to the Reigning King. He is to be, in the Messianic sense of Ps.
110:1, our personal Lord -- note David's expression "My Lord" (Heb., 'adon' - not 'adonai') and also the
obvious implication that Jesus drew from the same passage in Matt. 22:42-46.

Christ always made a point of teaching that the Gospel places practical demands on the lives of those who
would receive it -- He tells us to "count the cost" (Luke 14:26-35). The new birth is entrance to the Kingdom
(John 3:3,5). Are we to enter His Kingdom having made no decision about submitting to the King? Such
is ludicrous! No - the word "believe" (Grk., pistis) carries the connotation of commitment to Christ. Any faith
that is not manifested in works is dead faith (James 2:14-26). Those who promote an "easy believism" must
explain - if saving faith is simply the belief in an objective fact - the many obvious examples in the NT of
false faith that does not save -- e.g., Matt. 13:3-23; 1 Cor. 15:2. [8] When Scripture bids us "believe," we are
being asked to do more than simply mentally accept a set of facts -- "the devils also believe, and
tremble" (James 2:19).

CONCLUSION

The above is a brief summary of what I consider to be serious problems with dispensationalism as a
theological system. One does not necessarily have to embrace my particular eschatological view
("amillennialism") to recognize and reject these errors. In fact, for 1900 years the Church was virtually
unanimous in its teaching on the above subjects. That is, until John Nelson Darby introduced his peculiar
interpretive innovations in the last century. I conclude with a quote from one of Darby's contemporaries,
George Mueller:

"My brother, I am a constant reader of my Bible, and I soon found that what I was taught to
believe (by Darby's doctrine) did not always agree with what my Bible said. I came to see that I
must either part company with John Darby, or my precious Bible, and I chose to cling to my
Bible and part from Mr. Darby." - George Müeller, a contemporary and one time supporter of
Darby quoted by Robert Cameron, Scriptural Truth About the Lord's Return, pp.146-7.

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ENDNOTES
1. An excellent summarized contrast of 'historic' & 'dispensational' premill. can be found at
http://www.frii.com/~gosplow/disp2.html#c3. <BACK TO TEXT>

2. Many commentators throughout history have distinguished 'ages' within the history of man as related in
Scripture. However, this is not 'dispensationalism'! Such a comparison is superficial, taking into consideration
one common trait in order to establish an equivilent system of thought. <BACK TO TEXT>

3. A good critique of dispensationalism that shows how this system gained so much influence in America can
be read at http://www.founders.org/FJ09/article1.html. <BACK TO TEXT>

4. See my comments in THINKMAIL #7. <BACK TO TEXT>

5. John MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), p. 25 <BACK TO
TEXT>

6. See my article "Realized Millennialism" for a defense of my own eschatological views. <BACK TO
TEXT>

7. Philip Mauro, Dispensationalism Justifies the Crucifixion (Sterling, VA: Grace Abounding Ministries)
<BACK TO TEXT>

8. This entire section is a condensed version of my article "The Gospel of the Kingdom" <BACK TO TEXT>

last updated 04-28-99

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